About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Could Cuban Player Defections Really Mess Up New Baseball Relations?

If you heard today’s NPR story on “With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?“, then you heard a reference to the little-known “Cuban Adjustment Act.” Cuba’s baseball commissioner, Heriberto Suarez Pereda, places the blame squarely on this piece of U.S. immigration legislation for Cuba having already lost a number of major — and minor — players to the U.S., and for the likelihood that any efforts to normalize baseball competition between the two countries will be hampered by the risk of more Cuban player defections.

What on earth is the Cuban Adjustment Act? Even some immigration attorneys — particularly those practicing far from the shores of Florida — may have never had cause to use it, if they’ve even heard of it. The law dates back to 1959 — a response to Castro assuming power in Cuba and setting up the first Communist state in the Western hemisphere.

The idea of the Act is that any Cuban who makes it past the U.S. Coast Guard to dry land will be welcomed in a way that no other undocumented immigrant is. If they can meet some basic admissibility requirements (i.e. they’re not criminals or threats to U.S. health or security) they may receive a period of what’s called “parole.” This is a quasi-legal status allowing them to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

After one year of parole, they may apply for a U.S. green card (“adjustment of status”). That’s about as fast a track to U.S. residence as any non-citizen could ask for. (If you’re interested in the procedural details, see “Becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident Under the Cuban Adjustment Act.”)

Of course, normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations will take high-level agreements and probably new legislation, in the course of which this Act, too, might well be amended. Undoing decades of a broken diplomatic relationship may be more complex than it first appeared. But for two countries that revere baseball so much, there has to be a way, right?

U.S. Hits New Low in Treatment of Immigrants

150105potwI’ve always been glad to leave the immigration policy-making to others. When asked for my opinion on what should be done about, say, entry by undocumented immigrants, I’ll shake my head and say I can see both sides of the issue, and there’s no perfect solution.

But the one thing I’ve always said loud and clear is that, whatever the immigration law may be at the time, the U.S. government needs to do a better job at administering it consistently and fairly.

It’s always been a bit spotty in that regard — ask any immigration lawyer. You’ll hear horror stories about clients with great cases who were nevertheless denied the remedy or immigration benefit they applied for, were harassed for documents they couldn’t possibly have, were asked to produce evidence that was wholly irrelevant to their case, or were wrongly accused of lying because the officer seemed to be having a bad day.

But the events of the past year are enough to make one wonder whether U.S. immigration authorities have any regard for the law at all.

First, we’ve got the stories coming in from Artesia and other places processing Central American migrants fleeing violence there. In a damning report by Stephen Manning, he describes hearings at which women and children appeared before an immigration judge with a volunteer attorney by their side only to be told that the lawyer could neither speak to the judge nor to the lawyer’s own client. Last I heard, that’s a violation of the Fifth Amendment right to counsel, and contravenes the laws on asylum, which state that the U.S. shall not return people to a country where they fear persecution.

The U.S. government has simply ignored all this, claiming that the influx of migrants was a “national security threat.” Women and children, many of them from rural areas. Yeah, right.

Then we’ve got the on-again, off-again Executive Order of November 20, 2014 that promised an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and a new program called “DAPA” (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents).

On the very eve of when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was to begin accepting applications under the expanded DACA program — by which time many potential applicants had been no doubt gathering documents, consulting with attorneys, and so on — a Texas judge pulled out the rug by issuing an injunction against the order.

Many legal scholars think the judge’s order was overtly political and legally unsound. So wouldn’t you think that, while we wait for the dust to settle, the immigration enforcement authorities would at least hold off on deporting people who might be helped by DAPA or expanded DACA? No!

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is going all out to deport them, according to a report by Brianna Lee for the International Business Times (“Immigration Reform: Authorities No Longer Shielding DAPA-Eligible Immigrants From Deportation Cases“). This is despite the fact that anyone eligible for either of these programs obviously has family ties in the U.S., which should put them way down at the bottom of the list of enforcement priorities according to longstanding policies on “prosecutorial discretion.”

Criminals are supposed to be first on ICE’s deportation priority list. That’s why, on the ICE website, it proudly displays photos of ICE officers escorting suspected criminals out of the U.S., as in the photo above (which I’m supposed to tell you is a “Photo Courtesy of ICE”). Funny, I don’t see any photos on the ICE site showing the deportation of women and children.

One hears a lot of complaining from within the U.S. that the migrants from Central America somewhere got the idea that they’d be welcome. Well, the U.S. is certainly disabusing them of that notion. But is it any wonder that the world isn’t clear on what U.S. immigration law actually says, when we can’t seem to agree on it from one week to the next?

Parking Spot Disputes Too Common a Source of Violence

CarKeys_ iStockNo final word yet on whether the recent Chapel Hill, North Carolina killings of three young Muslims of Arab descent was a religiously motivated hate crime, but it’s definitely a sad reminder of the fevered disputes that can arise over neighborhood parking spots.

According to a report in the Washington Post, “A preliminary investigation revealed that Hicks had previously clashed with his victims — husband and wife Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Abu-Salha’s sister Razan — over parking spots in front of the apartment complex where they lived.”

Parking lot disputes between neighbors that turn deadly appear regularly in the U.S. news headlines. Take, for instance, “N.J. man gets 10 years for shooting man 4 times over parking spot,” from Newark in February, 2015; “Father slain in front of young son, caught up in feud between neighbors,” from Baltimore in January, 2015; and “Mom Watches Son Get Shot After Parking Space Argument & Reportedly Delivers Serious Reprisal,” from New York in May of 2014.

Those reports don’t even take us back as far as 2013! And they don’t include the all-too-many cases where someone gets shot over a dispute that wasn’t between neighbors but was, say, over a parking space at a restaurant, gas station, or Home Depot.

I need hardly mention that the law doesn’t give anyone a right to defend their parking space to the death. But in case anyone is curious as to who has rights to a neighborhood parking spot in the first place, here’s a basic rundown.

  • In a condo, apartment, or community run by a homeowners’ association, parking spots may be “assigned,” or even individually rented, in which case only one person has a right to park there.
  • On a public street, no one has ownership rights, not even to the spot in front of their house. (See Nolo’s Q&A, “Does my neighbor “own” a parking spot on a public street?“.)

Of course, there will always be neighbors who violate the laws or community rules, or simply do obnoxious things, like park their third car in front of your house and leave it there for weeks at a time. In light of the passions that can obviously arise over such transgressions, it might be wisest, if you’re the one who’s bothered by a neighbor’s parking habits, to request action from the authorities — a landlord, a homeowners’ association, or the municipal parking authorities (who will often ticket or tow a car that has been in one place for too long).

Buzz Around Refi Possibilities in Early 2015

Processed by: Helicon Filter;Last month’s New York Times headline couldn’t have been clearer: “It’s Time to Think About Refinancing Your Mortgage,” said Neil Irwin. We may not, Irwin explained, see rates as low as 3.8% on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage and 2.9% on a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage for long.

Just one week ago, Polyana da Costa, writing for Bankrate.com, reported in the same vein that, “Fidgety mortgage rates end up unchanged,” the result of which is a “refi mini-boom.”

As of today, mortgage interest rates have inched a hair since Irwin’s report – in particular for 15-year mortgages, with an average of over 3% reported around the Web. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity appears still to be open.

In fact, the only reason this “mini boom” hasn’t turned into a serious boom may be, as Marjo Shaffer, Vice President of RPM Mortgage in Alamo, California points out, that “Many of my clients have already refinanced, taking advantage of the low rates that have been available for a few years now.”

If you’re only just getting around to considering refinancing, however, you’ve got some attractive options before you.

The temptation may be to focus on how much you can lower your monthly payments. This amount can indeed be dramatic, especially if you’ve already lived in your home for some years. By choosing another 30-year mortgage, you’d stretch your remaining loan amount over that entire time period, which can’t help but lower your monthly payment.

Beware of this temptation, however, and run some numbers (with the help of a mortgage broker or online calculators). Otherwise, you could end up paying far more in interest over the long haul than you’d originally signed up for.

If you’re not struggling to make your current house payments, you might consider a 15-year mortgage. These often get overlooked during the initial home purchase, since most buyers have just drained their bank accounts to come up with a down payment and are in a state of budget shock. But by the time you’re thinking about a refi, you may have settled into a more predictable financial pattern. Perhaps your income has improved, too. Nabbing the extra-low interest rates that come with a 15-year mortgage might be a great way to come out ahead.

Still, the 15-year mortgage hasn’t turned into a customer favorite. Marjo says, “Most of my clients seem to want an option, not an obligation, to pay off their mortgage in a short time. They’ve got other expenses, like kids’ schooling, to think about. You can always make early payments on a 30-year mortgage, which will reduce your overall interest owed at the same time.”

There’s also the matter of how soon you plan to move. If you’ll need to pay closing costs on the refi (origination and appraisal fees), you’ll need to spend enough time in the house to see the benefits of your lower interest rate. (Online calculators can help you figure out your “break-even” point.) “For many of our clients,” says Marjo, “it makes sense to accept a slightly higher interest rate in return for no closing costs at all.”

No matter what, look at the big picture. According to Shaffer, “considerations such as retirement savings, risk tolerance, savings for an emergency, and discipline, are all part of choosing the mortgage that will work for you.” See Nolo’s article on “Refinancing Your Mortgage: When It Makes Sense” for more information.

Arizona Students to Find Out How Bizarre the U.S. Citizenship Exam Is

TJWas anyone surprised last year when over 1,000 American survey respondents put in a pathetic performance answering questions from the U.S. citizenship exam, such as what the three branches of the U.S. government are and which party controls the House and the Senate?

Asking people questions from the citizenship exam has long been every immigration lawyer’s favorite party game. Some of the questions are guaranteed to stump a crowd, especially back in the days when applicants had to name all 13 original colonies.

(After a test revision a few years back, this was reduced to three.)

The state of Arizona’s reported response to this “crisis,” however — passing a law mandating that wannabe high school graduates pass the U.S. citizenship test before they can receive their diplomas — seems misguided. And we can probably add it to the list of instances when teachers are forced to spend time on exam prep that could have gone to a far more meaningful activity.

Here’s the thing: The U.S. citizenship exam is weird. It was created for a limited and unusual purpose. The U.S. government can’t, or at least will never devote the resources to, give every green card holder who wants to become a citizen a complete course in U.S. history, government, and society. Instead, it asks applicants to study a set list of 100 questions, and to regurgitate the answers. (Or, at least, successfully answer six out of ten of them, with the questions chosen by the examiner during the citizenship interview. That’s different than what Arizona students will face — they have to get 60 out of the whole 100 right.)

Take a look at the list: It contains disjointed questions like, “When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?,” “What is one responsibility that is only for U.S. citizens?,” “What did Susan B. Anthony do?,” and “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?”

You could have a Ph.D. in U.S. history and having trouble answering some of them, because you actually have to get the wording right. For example, there’s a question, “What did Martin Luther King, Jr., do?” Last I looked, he did a number of important things — whole college courses are devoted to him alone. But there are only two possible answers that will be recognized as correct: He either “fought for civil rights” or “worked for equality for all Americans.”

I’d much rather know that Arizona students (and those in any other states that might be tempted to follow Arizona’s lead) had participated in some in-depth discussion of the topics so briefly touched on in the citizenship exam, such as the civil rights movement, the structure of the U.S. political system, and so on, than that they can pass the exam itself. Let’s leave the latter for party games, and for the immigrants in the unusual situation of having to prove their knowledge of the U.S. all in one sitting.

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